South African Richard Sterne shot the lowest round of his European Tour career today to lead the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

The 31-year-old from Pretoria, back playing a full schedule after a back problem limited him to only four events in 2010 and six the following season, fired a 10-under-par 62 that was only a single stroke outside the Emirates course record set by compatriot Ernie Els 19 years ago.

Els was five better than anybody else that day and went on to win by six, but Sterne goes into the second round just one ahead of Scot Stephen Gallacher.

The scoring was such that Lee Westwood's 67 - the same as 56-year-old Mark O'Meara, winner in 2004 - in his first competitive outing of the season was not even good enough to put him in the top 10.

Peter Lawrie is best of the Irish on six-under with Damien McGrane two shots back.

Paul McGinley near the bottom of the field on two-over.

Tournament director Mike Stewart had sent a letter to players in advance of the event warning them about the condition of the greens, but Paul Casey said after his 66: "I scratch my head slightly - they are absolutely pure.

"I have no idea what he was talking about. It's the best-conditioned golf course I've played this year by far.

"The guys are going to go bananas when you have a course as good as this."

Sterne stated after his 10 birdies: "Obviously when they send out something like that you do tend to worry, but generally I think they are better than we expected."

The five-time Tour winner, who could not manage the one extra birdie he needed in the last two holes to match the Els record, added: "I knew Ernie had shot 61 quite a while ago and always thought it would be impossible to get close, but I got as close as you could."

Gallacher's 63 equalled his lowest Tour round in 398 events, only one of which - the 2004 Dunhill Links at St Andrews - has ended in victory.

The 38-year-old, joint runner-up with Westwood last year and armed with a new driver after breaking his regular one last week, sank a 175-yard seven-iron for a two on the 485-yard sixth, added another eagle on the 13th and then had a hat-trick of birdies from the 15th.

On the greens he commented: "I think it was a mountain and a molehill to be honest. I came out here over Christmas and they were long and sandy, but they always seem to get them in brilliant condition."

Two more Scots, Challenge Tour graduate Chris Doak and early money list leader Scott Jamieson, came in with 65s, as did England's Tommy Fleetwood.

Chris Wood and Sergio Garcia, first and second in Qatar last weekend, both shot 68, but the Spanish star was troubled by his left shoulder and told Sky Sports: "If it does not get better than it is right now I don't know whether I will play tomorrow."

Westwood, who eagled the 564-yard 18th, is looking forward to resuming after a bogey-free start to his season confirmed that his move to Florida has enabled him to stay sharp over the winter.

"I have a few new clubs in the bag, woods and putter, and they all behaved," he said.

Asked if he wished he had gone to the States earlier, the world number eight said: "I tend to not look back in hindsight and have regrets and stuff like that. I'm pleased I've done it now."